There is an art to reading book blurbs and my wife has mastered it. She has an astute way of working through the new book shelves at the library and finding authors we will both find so good that we read them exhaustively. The key for her is remembering which of the blurb writers are reliable witnesses. Her knack has yielded impressive results, the latest Justin Cartwright. If you are shaking you head wondering that we had not heard of him “before” (mea culpa), we have made up for this in the number of his works we have read through happily.
To go back to “What do I read next?” Blurbs are one sort of cue, but I know I rely on the literary periodicals – TLS, LRB, NYRB, Commonweal – and the New York Times books columns – for suggestions. There are also publishers of particular genres that I look to: The SoHo Press, for one, which features detective fiction set in unusual locales. We also listen to the radio and often hear, on NPR or using the internet radio, to BBC Radio 3, of books to read. I have friends who assiduously write down any titles I might mention, but I never seem to remember to reciprocate in a similar way. There is also the accusatory uprightness of books on our shelves that have arrived in myriad ways; these I have never read but sometimes I yield to their stiff regard and read them.
The major literary prize winning titles are a sure way of piquing interest. The Booker Prize, the Pulitzer, the Orange or Whitbread Awards, those for crime fiction, and many others can all point a way.
Then there is the question of an approach to an author. Do I read exhaustively through the works of someone new to me? Sometimes, virtually gagging from surfeit, I stop and return later, perhaps with more appreciation. The negative aspect of reading every title of an author available, especially in detective fiction, is that the plots and characterization show themselves to be formulaic, a problem which is one inherent in the genre. In another sense, if this limitation does not distract from the novels, it marks a really good writer. Familiarity need not always breed negative responses.
Then there are favorites to reread, classics to revisit, the suggestions offered by “Staff Picks” on library shelves. In the end, “What next?” is bedeviled only by the choices available. E-readers and the internet have only broadened these. The question becomes in its own way an invitation to discover.